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I do not envy Secretary of Defense James Mattis but, boy, do I respect him. Until recently, I had not been much of a booster of the military, and for the first 40-something years of my life, my response to war and those who wage it can be summed up by getting arrested protesting the Iraq war while eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Now I find myself praying that a former general with the nickname Mad Dog and his former general buddies can keep our president from starting a nuclear war (among other looming disasters), and I find myself with a deep appreciation for military values. And a renewed value for public service and public servants.
The first time I met Mattis in person, he walked into a room full of people, shook each person’s hand, sat down, and said, “I was asked to serve. In my book, when you’re asked, you serve.”
Normally I wouldn’t share in a blog post what was said in a setting presumed to be private, but this is clearly not the only time he’s said this, because essentially the same quote has been attributed to him in The New Yorker, The Washington Post and probably every other newspaper. This is obviously an important point for him to get across, and he gets it across so well that I felt shivers up my spine when he said it.
Moreover, he is not taking pains to disabuse anyone of the notion that he’s distancing himself from Trump, his supposed commander in chief. (Apparently Gary Cohn isn’t bothering, either.) When you tell the troops, “Just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it,” the message is clear: He doesn’t like Trump or agree with him, but the job is critical, and he’s going to do the best he can for the country. In other words, the values he holds around public service outrank the values he holds in conflict with the president.
Those values of public service could well save us, or at least mitigate the damage, even as they collide every day with other values we hold dear, values that are violated in the most visceral way with every other headline out of Washington.
On the one hand, working in any capacity in the Trump administration today may be judged by history as supporting a figure who himself will certainly be judged without remorse. On the other hand, what if it weren’t Mattis, or any of the many other public servants in leadership or in the ranks who aren’t racists, aren’t fascists, aren’t climate deniers, aren’t wall-builders, and just want to serve the American people? If Mattis had declined to serve, to whom would Trump have gone next? Imagine the Mooch as our Secretary of Defense. Given the past nine months, I wouldn’t have put it past Congress to confirm him.
I am finding in these unprecedented times that the value I now hold around public service is more important to me than I thought. I realized many years ago, after starting Code for America, that public service had become one of my core values, but Trump’s election has tested that value in ways not have imagined a year ago, and the result has been to make it both clearer and dearer to me. I’m clearer than ever that when you serve, you serve the American people and the principles of American government, not the person who sits in the Oval Office. If you happen to find inspiration in someone up the chain from you, that’s great, but that’s not why you’re here.
Let me be crystal-clear that I don’t judge any individual who has left federal government since Trump took office. My own formal public service was limited to the year that I could get a leave of absence, but more than that, I understand the toll public service takes on you under the best of circumstances, and many of the people I valued most were simply pushed to their limits. Many would have left even with a different election outcome. But yes, for some, it was the sense they were now part of something evil, and they had to make a choice.
But sometimes that choice is a luxury. The veteran to whom we’ve promised benefits after she served our country does not have the luxury of choosing to opt out of the federal government; she needs processes to work for her to access benefits. About 75 million people in our country rely on Medicaid; they don’t have the luxury of opting out, either. If the people who administer these and other services walk away and others don’t come to replace them, that choice will be made for them, with devastating consequences.
These programs don’t work as well as they need to today, and we’ve been making progress improving how they are administered, so they can serve the people who need them better. Anyone who can still do that should, at least in my book. Anyone who’s still doing that, and doing the right thing for Americans under incredibly difficult conditions, is a hero to me. Even if the news violates your sense of decency daily, I ask you to consider what public service means, and to hold another value dear. I ask you to value and support — publicly if you can — those who still serve according to values you share.
Jen Pahlka is the founder and executive director of Code for America. In 2013 and 2014, she served as the U.S. deputy chief technology officer, where she helped found the U.S. Digital Service. Reach her @pahlkadot.